There are basically four different ways you can end a movie: Happy, Sad, Bittersweet Happy, and Bittersweet Sad. Afraid that might be a little reductive? Not when you realize that there are a zillion different ways of presenting these endings.
So how do you determine exactly what ending a story might have? It’s really quite simple.
To determine the type of ending you have to figure out the answer to two questions. Do the good guys win? Does the Main Character go home happy? That’s it.
We’ll start out with Happy Endings, which we can also call Triumphs.
These are the kinds of movies that everyone thinks most stereotypical studio executives love. While I don’t have any deep scientific research to prove why, I’m pretty sure it’s because Happy Ending films have the biggest box office draws. The majority of people want to see a movie with a happy ending (Personally, I prefer something a little more complex, but we’ll get to that in a different post).
The good guys win and the Main Character goes home happy. Plain and simple…(see attached video below)
We start out with the super cheesy celebration of all things male, Top Gun. What does the clip above reveal? Well, if you look closely, you’ll notice that the good guys are jumping up and down while they thrust their fingers in the air, proclaiming their victory over the Evil Empire. In the following scenes, Maverick (Tom Cruise) has finally resolved his personal issues concerning Goose and living under the shadow of his father. Tossing his buddy’s dog tags into the ocean, he’s now “free” to kick ass on his own terms.
The good guys have won and the Main Character heads back to Miramar happy—Top Gun is the very definition of the Happy Movie.
What about something a little more sophisticated?
As wonderfully complex as Amelie is, it still ends the same way as the missiles and chicks flick. This time though, the good guys are less a force to be reckoned with than a group of people who successfully overcome their own problems with the help of the title character. Of course, even Amelie herself can’t avoid a happy ending as she scooters her way through the streets of Paris, hugging her new-found love.
Personally, the reason I love this clip so much is the way in which Jean-Pierre Jeunet visually reveals this kind of ending with the kinetic camera work, i.e. using the medium to describe the emotion. Awesome.
Lastly, we have the bawdy South Park movie. Satan is sent back to Hell, thus reverting the quaint Colorado town back to its idyllic roots. Stan, the main Main Character (the film actually has several main characters]) also has resolved his personal issues with Wendy…albeit, a bit messier than she probably would have liked!
Good guys win. Main Character goes home happy.
Three completely different films. All with the same structural ending.
Three Other Endings
In forthcoming articles we’ll take a look at the other ways you can end a story. Hopefully the above clips serve to show that, even with the stifling notion of only four kinds of endings, there are a zillion different ways that you can incorporate those endings into your story.
Nobody likes a sad movie. When audiences go to see a movie they want to be uplifted, right?
They want to escape and forget about their daily problems. They want to laugh and they want to feel good. Therefore, if you want to make a movie that everyone loves, it makes sense that you would want to avoid a sad ending at all costs..or so you would think.
Check out the collection of Debbie-Downers below.
Sad movies, indeed. But also extremely popular, and in some cases, critically lauded.
Using our definition from the previous article on how to end a movie, a sad ending would be one where the good guys lose and the Main Character goes home sad. The clips above satisfy both requirements, thus earning the label of Tragedy.
In King Kong, we watch the lovable ape fall to his death, thus experiencing a tragic ending to some awesome CG animation. However, one should be careful not to automatically assume that the death of a beloved character signals a tragedy. It’s not so much Kong’s death that is tragic to the story’s structure, as it is what his death represents — namely, the failed attempt by producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) to bring about the “Story of the Century.” It’s a subtle difference, but one that is important. Death does not always equal tragedy. Carl is the Protagonist, and therefore by extension, the “good guy” that the audience is rooting for. His failure is one half of the story structure tragic equation.
The other half lies in the despondent Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). Her heart is torn in half as she finally realizes her true feelings for the big hairy one; torn in two because her realization has come too late. Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) ascends to comfort her, but it is clear that she is headed home unhappy.
In the terrifying Se7en, the good guys don’t lose so much as the bad guy wins…and in a big way. Serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) constructs an elaborate scheme to commit murders based on the seven most deadly sins. The heroes of the story track him down and catch him; apprehending him after only five murders. Unfortunately, the game is not over as the box reveals John Doe’s fulfillment of the sixth sin. Tormented by a truly great dilemma (really, I wish I could write one as strong as this), Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) finishes Doe’s dirty work by carrying out the last sin: Revenge. The bad guy wins.
At the start of this thriller, Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is looking forward to retirement (Get it? The “Somer” of his life is “setting”…) but finds that task impossible to carry out in the end. His captain asks him where he’ll be and Somerset answers, “Oh, I’ll be around.” Clearly, Morgan’s detective has no intention of hanging it up just yet. The fact that he isn’t happy about his decision is made obvious in his closing line.
And we conclude our look at depressing flicks with the Oscar-celebrated Amadeus. Here, mediocrity advocate Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) fails in his attempts to be remembered as one of the great composers of all time. Although he schemes to bring about Mozart’s death, he is still considered by the story to be the “good guy.” Reprehensible as some of his actions may be, he is still the guy driving the plot forward, and therefore the one audiences instinctively assign the term “good guy” to. His failure is what is ultimately tragic.
But Salieri is also the Main Character of this story, as we’re in fact, seeing the story through his memories. As he is wheeled down the asylum, we can clearly see that although he appears to have overcome his anger towards God, he is still tortured inside by it. That angst still rides deep within his heart.
Salieri is not going home happy.
Sad Flicks Generate Tix
As the above examples show, a sad ending does not guarantee box office disappointment. As always, the burden of success lies on the writer’s ability to portray a story that resonates in the lives of the audience members. The three movies shown above are all successful in their own way; each found an audience that didn’t mind leaving the theatre with something more than the saccharine after-taste of an engineered feel-good film. Combining this idea of the good guys losing and the Main Character going home sad will insure that the sad ending actually has some deeper meaning to it beyond just making an audience cry.
Having examined both Triumphant Stories and Tragic Stories, the focus shifts now to stories with a more sophisticated ending. These last two categories represent my favorite kind of story.
Why? Because to me they more closely resemble real life.
Sure, there are times when I succeed in my goals and feel really great about it. Likewise, there are moments when I fail in my efforts and feel really miserable about it (unfortunately more the latter, than the former). But rarely does life ever work out this nicely. More frequently, I find that I achieve my goals at the expense of my own personal life or I find that failing miserably turned out to be the best thing for me. Either way, it seems these outcomes happen more often than all-out triumphs or tragedies.
The only drawback with identifying these kinds of stories is that there isn’t a great one-word term to explain them like there is with triumphs or tragedies. In a general sense they can be called “bittersweet,” but even this isn’t as accurate as it should be. Which is more prevalent, the bitter or the sweet? And to what part of the story does it apply? Bittersweet accurately describes the general feeling these kinds of stories have, but it’s not too helpful in the actual creation of a story.
Because the Main Character is such an integral part of a story’s meaning it can sometimes be helpful to use their emotional state as a kind of benchmark by which to evaluate the ending of a story. With this in mind, the “Bittersweet” ending can be divided into two categories: the Personal Triumph story and the Personal Tragedy story. The second (my ultimate favorite) will be looked at in greater depth in the following article, but for now, I’d like to focus on the sweeter part of bittersweet.
The Personal Triumph
These are the stories where the good guys lose, yet the Main Character goes home happy. As always, I’ve tried to put together a collection of clips illustrating this concept (found at the bottom of this article).
The first clip comes from the popular film, The Devil Wears Prada. In this story, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is the “good guy” trying to succeed in her attempts to be the assistant to Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep). As the clip above shows though, things don’t quite work out the way Andy thought they would.
Having grown to a point where she can confidently make the decision her heart wants her to, Andy turns away and chooses a life of tweed over one of Prada. However, even though she blew it, she still ends up gaining Miranda’s approval. The good guy (or in this case gal) loses, yet goes home happy — a perfect example of a Personal Triumph story.
In Donnie Darko, the same kind of ending exists. If you haven’t yet seen this film, you should probably skip the next couple of paragraphs — it won’t make any sense at all (it might not make sense even if you have seen it!)
Just moments before he is crushed by the jet engine, Donnie starts laughing hysterically. Why? Because he is no longer worried about dying alone. Although we don’t see the actual act, it’s safe to assume that his relationship with Gretchen has grown to a point where he doesn’t feel like he’s alone in the world anymore (i.e, they slept together). Donnie has love. The Main Character, who started out in a catatonic state, ends up going home happy.
But where does this leave the rest of the world?
Unfortunately, Donnie’s acceptance of his own death reverts the Primary Universe back to its miserable state. The alienation and the fixed conservative attitudes, which are the real source of the problems in the story, continue on.
Gretchen asks Donnie, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could go back in time and erase all that pain and suffering?” But even a time-traveling superhero like Donnie can’t outrun the past. Whatever happened, will always be. Dukakis will lose, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) will continue to abuse children and Cherita will still be ridiculed by the other kids in her class.
Donnie could have let this world end by refusing to go back in time. In doing so, he would have brought an end to all of the painful and incompatible attitudes and the good guys would have won. But he didn’t. He found a connection that he never thought he would and felt that that was enough of a life.
The Main Character goes home happy, yet the world as a whole, the “good guys” that we are rooting for, end up losing.
Last up is the Academy Award-winning Rain Man. In case it’s been awhile since you’ve seen the film, Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) abducts his brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) in hopes that he can ransom him for an inheritance. Along the way Charlie grows to love his brother and ultimately, decides to give up the inheritance. His brother means more to him now than any amount of money ever could. The “good guy” loses, yet goes home happy.
Much simpler to explain than Donnie Darko, but no less meaningful.
Feeling Good About Losing Out
In short, that’s what these stories mean and why they feel the way they do. The audiences feels good about losing. Three completely different genres: a popular chick lit flick, an indie fan-favorite and an Academy Award winner — all with the same kind of ending. In giving audiences something closer resembling real life, these films become cherished experiences that outlast the usual mindless drivel found in most theaters.
Feeling good about losing out is one thing, feeling miserable about winning is something else. Like the personal triumph, the personal tragedy straddles the emotional bridge between an all out rejoicing and an overwhelming depression.
But whereas the former emphasizes the good, this kind of ending focuses on the bad. It’s the bitter half of a bittersweet ending, an ending that far too many of us have experienced in our own lives.
Success often comes with a price. That’s the overriding message of this kind of ending. These stories focus on the internal turmoil a Main Character suffers through in their endeavors to achieve success in the story as a whole. Often the Main Characters in these stories have pushed themselves to such an extreme that they have forgotten or buried their own personal issues. Victory, it would seem, is no salvation for one’s personal demons.
The Personal Tragedy
The following clips are examples of stories where the good guys win, yet the Main Character goes home sad (please see the video attached to the bottom of this article).
Besides being great films, what each of these clips have in common is an overwhelmingly gloomy soundtrack. In fact, they’re so similar that they almost become interchangeable. Dark and ominous minor chords support what should otherwise be a joyous occasion. The Joker’s vile scheme to plunge Gotham into chaos has been thwarted. Perky Marge brings the murderous wood-chipper operator Grimsrud to justice. And Buffalo Bill will never finish his custom suit. These are fantastically great endings. Then why is the music so depressing?
Shouldn’t Batman and Commissioner Gordon be jumping up and down with joy like Mav and his buddies did back on the aircraft carrier? After all, in addition to stopping the Joker, they did manage to thwart Two-Face’s attempt at dastardly revenge. Where’s the all-out celebration? As it turns out, this downer is all Bruce’s fault.
Throughout the The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has struggled with the impact he has had on the public and whether or not his presence is a good thing or a bad thing for the people of Gotham. He wants to be the hero, but realizes in the end that the only way he can save them all is by becoming the bad guy. He assumes responsibility for Harvey’s murders and tells Gordon to let loose the dogs. In doing so, he secures Gotham’s future, but at the price of his own. The good guys win, yet the Main Character goes home sad (or better yet, unfulfilled).
The Batman has seen himself live long enough to become the villain.
Similarly, in Fargo, astute car salesman Jerry Lundegard (William H. Macy) finds himself a victim of his own best laid plans. His scheme to ransom his own wife carelessly unravels into a triple murder, calling the attention of the headstrong local pregnant police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDorman). As with the structural split in King Kong, Fargo is an atypical story where the Main Character is not the Protagonist. Jerry is our personal “in” to the story and thus can be considered the Main Character. As charming as Marge is, she still is simply the character leading the crime investigation against the bad guys, and thus is labeled the Protagonist.
Marge succeeds and captures one of the baddies (she was unfortunately too late for the other). But as you can clearly see in the image to the right (and in the clip above), Jerry is not faring as well. The good guys win, but the Main Character is definitely not going “home” happy.
Another character not going home happy is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs. Graduation ceremonies are supposed to be happy celebrations of important milestones in one’s life; they signify meaningful growth. But Clarice has not yet grown to a spot where she can rightfully claim the right of transformation. As Lecter’s phone call belies, the lambs are still crying, regardless of Clarice’s recent success in the field.
Buffalo Bill may have been stopped, but Clarice will still go home haunted by those screams.
Feeling Awful About Winning
Winning isn’t everything, and these stories are meaningful representations of that reality. But serving up a downer ending should not be considered something to avoid. Looking beyond the success explored through character and plot in these stories is the success these films experienced when released to the general public. Two of them won Oscars for their masterful writing, while the third made over half a billion dollars at the box office. While the Main Characters of these films may have gone home sad, the filmmakers certainly did not.
Audiences appreciate and embrace these kinds of stories because they shed light on why things are the way they are. People crave these stories because they crave meaningful conclusions to their endeavors. The drive to win at any cost is something every audience member can recognize and empathize with and is one of the reasons why these films remain so powerful.
Simply put, a story with a meaningful ending helps to explain why.
There are tragic endings, and there are triumphant ones. There are celebrations of personal achievements, and cautionary tales of pushing too far. The meaningful ending is the purpose of a story, it is the essence of what the author is trying to say.
Understanding the mechanics of what makes a story a tragedy or a triumph can go a long way towards insuring that every audience member ends their experience both satisfied and emotionally fulfilled.
A Theoretical Basis for Understanding
In this series on Meaningful Endings, I’ve set out to examine exactly what is going on with well-told stories. While the two core questions asked (Did the good guys win, Does the main character go home happy or sad) may seem overly simplistic, they are actually based on a very sophisticated theory of story known as Dramatica. If you’re a regular reader of this site or know me at all, you know that I consider this theory the be-all end-all of story theory. Pretty much everything I write is either informed or heavily inspired by what I’ve learned from studying it. In other words, I think it’s super-cool.
Happy Ending - The protagonist achieves the “outer” and “inner” goal. In other words, the hero gets the gold and becomes a better person.
Bittersweet - The protagonist achieves the “inner” goal, but fails to get the “outer” goal. In Rain Man, Charlie doesn’t get “ownership” of his brother, but he does grow from a self-centered narcissist to a more selfless brother.
Cautionary Tale - The protagonist gets the “outer” goal, but fails to achieve the “inner” transformation. In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster gets the power and wealth (outer), but dies empty and unfulfilled (“Rosebud” represented the innocence and joy of his childhood).
Tragic - The protagonist achieves neither the “inner” nor the “outer” goal, Leaving Las Vegas was, in my opinion, a tragedy (although, you could argue that the protagonist’s goal was to “drink himself to death” — which he did accomplish).
Now whether or not Rydall was influenced or aware of Dramatica is not fully clear as it isn’t mentioned anywhere in his book (I suspect it is as there are more than a couple instances where the theory shines through). Either way, it’s a fantastic read, especially if you have any interest in becoming a story analyst. I bring it up only to show that this concept of connecting the results of the main story line with the results from the personal story line is a sound technique for analyzing what a story is trying to say.
Two questions: Did the good guys win or lose? and Did the main character go home happy or sad? The sum of which adds up to a purposeful ending.
The Good Guys Win or Lose
When you talk about this half of the equation, what you are really focusing on is the Objective Story Throughline. Typically referred to as the “A” story line (or “outer” story), the Objective Story Throughline is that part of the story that involves everyone. It is labeled Objective because it is looking at the story’s central problem from an objectified 3rd person point-of-view. Characters don’t have names when taking this perspective, they have roles. So Mav in Top Gun becomes the “Hot Shot Fighter Pilot”, Marge in Fargo becomes the “Plunky Sheriff”, and Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada becomes the “Evil Magazine Editor” (of course there are other names you could call her, but let’s keep it clean!).
It’s a good trick because when you stop using character’s real names, you tend to focus less on their own personal issues and more on how they function in the story. This is the part of the story where Protagonists, Antagonists, Sidekicks and Guardians reside. Again, function over the personal.
So when you ask the question, “Did the good guys win or lose?” you are in essence asking “Did the Protagonist’s efforts to achieve the goal end up in success or failure?” The Protagonist, nine times out of ten, is someone the audience would interpret as the “good guy” and it is this interpretation that they use as a baseline when they want to know the logistical meaning behind a story’s conclusion.
The Dramatica theory of story labels the answer to this question the Story Outcome. Was it a Success (good guys win) or was it a Failure (good guys lose)?
The Main Character Goes Home
On the other side of the meaningful endings equation lies the Main Character. When asking whether they go home happy or sad, what you are really trying to establish is whether or not the Main Character resolves their own personal problems. These internal issues are the sole property of the Main Character; other characters may comment on it or be a part of it, but the heart of that emotional turmoil belongs to the Main Character. So Stan has his Wendy-induced anxiety, Detective Somerset wants to retire, and Charlie Babbitt has his daddy issues. The story these Main Characters inhabit serves as an opportunity for personal growth.
So when you ask the question, “Did the Main Character go home happy or sad?” what you are really asking is “Did the Main Character resolve their own personal angst?” The audience uses the answer to this question as a baseline for determining the emotional meaning behind a story’s conclusion.
Dramatica labels the answer to this question the Story Judgment; Judgment because it is the Author’s evaluation of the Main Character’s efforts to work through his or her issues. Was it Good (main character goes home happy) or was it Bad (main character goes home sad)?
A Purpose to Storytelling
Choosing the answers to these two questions locks in the meaning of a story. A storyteller can only hope for confusion if he or she does not fully appreciate the concept between these two story structures. Audiences reach to stories for an explanation of why things are the way they are. Sure, there is a certain entertainment value that they may be seeking, and sadly, perhaps, even a thoughtless desire for distraction. But overwhelmed by the crushing flood of information and bite-sized video clips available from monitors and phones everywhere, audience members will quickly comment on anything less than purposeful as “Meh.” They want more.
Giving them a meaningful ending overcomes all that noise.
A story provides the audience a welcome respite from the meaningless and a chance to ponder why.